It was always going to be a tough midweek fixture for Clarke Carlisle, the first active professional footballer to appear on Question Time (BBC1, Thursday). He may have been playing on home turf in Burnley but the gaffer had been tinkering with the formation of the NHS front line and the opposition were deploying very defensive tactics at the Chilcot Inquiry; then shortly before kick-off, one of the star players had to stand down after lurid allegations about his private life were revealed.
The big centre-back had a couple of challenges: to stop George Galloway from galloping down the left wing and keep Alastair Campbell quiet in the middle of the park. But Blair's spin doctor was on his side, in footballing terms at least – he is a renowned Burnley fan.
Campbell is, of course, one of the best defenders when it comes to New Labour's record on Iraq and the economy – as one-eyed as the most ardent football supporter – and he just keeps hacking away even while the referee is furiously blowing the whistle in his ear. David Dimbleby should really have shown him the red card, or at least one with a reddish hue (it's a straight sending-off these days because yellow cards were phased out when the Lib Dems joined the Coalition).
Carlisle, who was named "Britain's Brainiest Footballer" in an ITV quiz show back in 2002 and is currently the chairman of the Professional Footballers' Association, the players' union, kicked off with some robust challenges of his own. On the appointment of Ed Balls, he opined: "The best teams are the ones that have every worker pulling in the same direction." A member of the audience said Labour had been "picking the wrong team from the off". Clever clogger Clarke countered that there had been "extraneous circumstances" as to why Balls had not been the first name on Ed Miliband's teamsheet. It wasn't really a phrase you could imagine that old red devil himself, Sir Alex Ferguson, using to explain his squad rotation to the press: "Extraneous circumstances, bloody hell. You're all bastards."
From Ed Balls back to footballs, and the issue of NHS reform was tackled with a reasonably neat analogy. The bureaucratic middle men who are facing the chop are like directors of football who are appointed by clubs to be in charge of player acquisitions: "He might see a player he thinks is valuable, buy him for the team but the actual manager doesn't believe this guy fits into what he needs for his team." It seemed a populist approach but the crowd didn't cheer on this occasion. This is, after all, Question Time and those who actually turn up to ask questions may think the workings of the NHS are more complicated than that.
To be fair to the lad, he only came close to footie-speak once more when he said of the Coalition: "When you get two differing views around the table, you're not going to get 100 per cent of what you promised you were going to give." At least he didn't say they would have to give 110 per cent, because that might send the economy into another recession.
But Clarke knows his maths – after all, he's been on Countdown and been successful at it, and not many politicians would fancy that challenge. First a quiz show, then the panel show: Carlisle is taking it one programme at a time.